Fire in the Mud Hole!
Blaze at Roatan Landfill Illuminates Need to Better Manage Trash

May 25th, 2016
by Robert Armstrong

The “sanitary” landfill for Roatan Municipality, located on the road to Mud Hole, just outside Sandy Bay, caught fire this week for the second time in three years. As we write, much of Sandy Bay is asphyxiated by toxic fumes. This is what we had to say the last time the dump caught fire (and burned for more than two months). It appears not much has changed, except that the current mayor says he has awarded a “concession” to a foreign firm to do basically what the last mayor described three years ago below.

(Originally published in the September 2013 webzine)

Thick smoke billows from the waste dump on Mudhole Road, north of Roatan’s Sandy Bay, July 29, a day after the landfill caught fire.

As this issue went to press in late August 2013, the landfill for Roatan Municipality was still smoldering from a trash fire that broke out there July 28, spewing toxic smoke into much of Sandy Bay.

The cause of the fire was undetermined. Harvey Levy, head of the municipal sanitation department, speculated “maybe somebody throw a cigarette.” But Mayor Julio Galindo did not discard the possibility that the fire “happened on its own” due to a build up of methane gas, the result of years of negligent waste management.

“Nobody followed the procedures,” said Levy, who took responsibility for the facility, on Mudhole Road, in 2010. Such procedures should have included regularly compacting the trash and covering it with soil, pumping out rainwater that leaches through the waste into a septic system and installing chimneys to allow the methane to vent. But when he arrived on the job, “the system was collapsed,” Levy said.

Lidia Medina, head of the municipality’s environmental unit, said the Mudhole facility could no longer even be considered a sanitary landfill. “What we have,” she said, “is an open-air dump.”

Levy said the Fire Department “threw about 5,000 gallons of water” on the fire the first day but “could not contain it.” Since then, earth movers have been trying to smother it with dirt. Galindo said that as of August 20 about 600 truckloads of mud had been thrown on top of the burning trash. “That’s the only way out,” he said. “Keep smothering it; keep throwing mud on it.”

Scavengers sort through freshly dumped trash for recyclables even as an earth mover places dirt atop the still smoldering refuse from the fire that erupted a week earlier.

Scavengers sort through freshly dumped trash for recyclables even as an earth mover places dirt atop the still smoldering refuse from the fire that erupted a week earlier.

Medina said no analysis had been done on the fumes emitting from the landfill, but she said they were “definitely” contaminating, because there is a “mix of everything” in the dump. “It could create problems for human health,” she said.

The municipal officials agreed the only solution for the Mudhole facility was to close it, cap it and start a new landfill with proper management procedures from the beginning.

The problem with the old facility, constructed more than 10 years ago, was that the volume of solid waste produced on the island simply grew faster than the municipality could cope with it.

“The population grew more than expected,” said Medina.

Levy said the volume of trash produced in the municipality grew from 45-50 tons a day when he assumed the job in 2010 to 80 tons today. Meanwhile, he said, he can’t remember a week in which he had all five of his trash collection trucks running. He said 80 percent of Roatan residents do not pay their sanitation fees. The Mayor thought it was more.

“It costs the Municipality about Lps. 32 million a year to handle garbage,” said Galindo, “and we only collect like Lps. 11 million” in sanitation fees.

Levy said when he proposed earlier this year to assess each family Lps. 50 for garbage collection “people wanted to put up a strike.”

Galindo’s proposed solution is to acquire a piece of property adjacent to the existing dump, owned by Howard Solomon, and build a new sanitary facility that will be managed correctly from the start.

“He doesn’t have clear title to the property,” said the Mayor, “but we made him an offer.” The funds, he said, would have to come out of existing municipal resources. “We’re gonna have to probably sacrifice some other project,” he said. “It’s number one on my list right now.”

Galindo said the new landfill would need to be ready by next March-April, because by then the current facility would have no more room to dump more trash. He wants to build a playground on top of the old dump and plant bamboo around it.

However, Mary Monterroso, a long-time resident of Sandy Bay, downwind from the dump, thinks “the absurdity of an oceanfront landfill on an eco-tourism island has to stop.” Monterroso has launched a movement, with a Facebook page, to ban further landfills in residential, oceanfront areas on Roatan.

“This is the single most important infrastructure issue and environmental disaster we are facing,” Monterroso wrote in an August 13 post. “The island population is growing at an unprecedented pace, and with millions of visiting tourists, the disposal of our mounting garbage has to be managed professionally.”

Monterroso has suggested that Roatan Municipality pay neighboring Santos Guardiola Municipality a fee to dump Roatan’s garbage at the landfill at Punta Blanca, on the island’s East End, that was built to international standards in 2008 with a $1.6 million loan from the Interamerican Development Bank and has never been used.

However, Levy and Galindo maintain that transporting Roatan’s garbage to Punta Blanca, about 20 km away, would be prohibitively expensive.

“We’re better off in the long run by far to build a place here,” said Galindo. But he said “if there was no alternative, that would be the next choice.”

A typical trash receptacle on Roatan leaves the garbage exposed to the elements, as well as marauding animals, until the collection truck passes by.

A typical trash receptacle on Roatan leaves the garbage exposed to the elements, as well as marauding animals, until the collection truck comes.

Another imperative, all the officials agreed, was to reduce the amount of waste and control the type of waste going into the dump. Plastics in particular are a major problem, they said.

Medina said a Bay Islands regulation required that any company bringing plastics to the islands had to be responsible for removing them. But she said the rule had never been enforced.

Medina said her environmental office had been struggling since 2007 to get Pepsi and Cervecería Hondureña, whose beverage containers constitute the bulk of the plastic waste on Roatan, to establish a system for removing plastics and other hazardous wastes from the island for recycling and disposal. Currently, she said, scavengers comb through garbage for glass, plastics and aluminum cans and sell them to a recycling plant in Coxen Hole. She aims to create a more socially and environmentally sound system.

Medina said there was now an individual who removes the used motor oil from the island, which was previously dumped, and sells it to recycling centers on the mainland. She wants to replicate that model for other wastes, such as tires, batteries and personal computers.

A few years ago, she said, a private company erected some recycling bins along the main island road, but nobody uses them, and there is no system for collecting from them. Levy said the company was looking only to sell the billboard space connected to the bins for advertising. “They didn’t even come through my office,” he said. “I never would approve them on the street.”

Recycling bins like this one, seen on the roadside all over Roatan, serve only as (usually unutilized) billboard advertising.

Recycling bins like this one, seen on the roadside all over Roatan, serve only as (usually unutilized) billboard advertising.

Medina’s office has done a study to identify optimal collection points throughout the municipality for bottles and cans, such as near supermarkets and pulperías (mini markets). The idea is to have trucks regularly pick up from those points and bring the recyclable and hazardous wastes to a central collection point for sorting. She said Pepsi and Cervecería had already acquired land in Dixon Cove to construct the central facility and were applying for the construction permit as of early August. She claimed construction would “definitely” be completed before the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Galindo said an engineering firm from El Salvador had expressed interest in using Roatan’s garbage to generate electricity.

“What they’re proposing is that they would generate power out of it, but they would take care of all the garbage. They would do all the garbage collecting,” he said. “I don’t have a written offer from them or anything of that sort … I don’t know how feasible that is.”

Galindo is skeptical, because he said “with all the garbage produced between here and Oak Ridge the guy can only do about three megawatts.”

Galindo said the Salvadoran proposal was separate from the garbage-to-electricity proposal that Roatan Electric Company (RECO) has been studying for more than a year, which he said “nothing ever come out of.” But he said the Salvadoran party intended to meet with RECO’s Kelcy Warren in the US to discuss the idea, since RECO would likely transmit the electricity.

Meanwhile, said the Mayor, “we’ll continue working on it.” And meanwhile the garbage continues to pile up. “The landfill is a big headache,” Galindo said.


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